Breakfast at Cinecittà’s: Italy’s Glocal Studio Tours 

By Carla Mereu Keating

As recently observed in the case of Britain, Germany and France, film studio tours featured prominently in studios’ promotional agendas and attracted significant media attention over the years. Following on from previous STUDIOTEC posts on the subject, this section casts an eye on film studio tours in Italy and explores the wide range of encounters that the press offered to public scrutiny.  

In the late 1930s Italian newspapers and film periodicals reported on several high-profile visits to Cinecittà, Italy’s jewel ‘city of cinema’ and Europe’s largest film studio at the time of its inauguration in 1937. Distinguished film industry visitors in the early years of the studio’s activity included RKO’s head of foreign sales Philip Reisman, who was invited to a colazione [breakfast] in the studio’s newly-opened restaurant in September 1937 (Cinema Illustrazione [CI], 29 Sept 1937: 12). In Rome after attending the film festival in Venice, Reisman was reported to have been favourably ‘impressed’ by the Italian welcoming party: 

I believe Cinema City has the most complete studios I have ever seen in my life (…) Italy is very anxious to get outsiders to produce there (…) and they are working to this end

Motion Picture Daily, 28 Oct 1937: 3

In the following months a number of well-known Hollywood figures, such as director Rouben Mamoulian (CI, 1938: 11), were reported to have toured the studios accompanied by Italian state representatives and film experts. 

Mamoulian visits Cinecittà 

If these business receptions meant to promote Italian studios’ modernization and to assert their competitiveness on a global scale, in the unsettled political climate which led to the outbreak of World War Two studio tours also aimed to reinforce Italy’s geopolitical orientation. For example, in December 1937, a Nazi delegation headed by Reichsleiter Rudolph Hess visited Cinecittà and watched the shooting of L’allegro cantante (1938). In early June 1940, only a few days before Mussolini declared war on the side of Nazi Germany, a Japanese diplomatic mission was shown around the newly-opened state film school located across the road from Cinecittà.

In these same years, Italians also travelled abroad to visit foreign film studios. For example, in August 1938 Benito Mussolini’s son Vittorio toured Berlin’s UFA studios in the company of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels (CI, 10 Aug 1938: 10). Cinephile Vittorio was neither a novice in studio tours nor was he unaware of their controversial politics. Infamously, in the summer of 1937, Vittorio had been invited by US film producer Hal Roach to visit his Culver City studios after the latter had announced an unpropitious co-production deal with the Italian. Roach’s invitations to a dinner party in honour of his guest were met with some embarrassment in Hollywood, with the anti-fascist Motion Picture Artists Committee reportedly

call[ing] on the decent people of Hollywood who emphatically dissent from the welcome accorded Signor Mussolini to redeem the name of our community by sending a carload of medical supplies to Spain

Photoplay, Jan 1938: 72

A new movie Mecca

As Italian film companies gradually resumed activity after the end of the war, studios reopened their doors to visitors. Because of its status as a displaced persons camp, Cinecittà was slowly restored to its splendour during the late 1940s. Eager to demonstrate its health and safety standards, in June 1949 a visit to the iconic studio was organised for an international delegation of scientists, in Rome for the Second World Health Assembly (Araldo dello Spettacolo [AdS], 23 Jun 1949: 3).   

Health scientists visit Cinecittà

Cinecittà was not the only film studio attraction worth sightseeing. Other film studios in Rome had their chance to shine. Film company Titanus, for example, was particularly keen to show off their recently renovated Farnesina complex and invited film industry personalities and the press to cocktail parties and tours of its state-of-the-art projection and dubbing facilities (AdS, 15 Sept 1949: 1). In October 1950, LUCE’s refurbished newsreel studio opened its doors to representatives of the Syrian government, visiting the publicly-owned institute to study their organization in the light of building a similar one back in Syria (Cinespettacolo, Oct 1950: 18). Scalera’s studio similarly welcomed illustrious visitors to raise the company’s international profile. In June 1949, for example, India’s Ambassador to Italy Dewan Ram Lall and family visited the studio and attended the filming of Al diavolo la celebrità (Fame and the Devil) in the company of tenor Ferruccio Tagliavini and the film’s international cast (AdS, 27 Jun 1949: 2).

Indian diplomats at Scalera 

Postwar studio tours appear to serve two main film-industrial purposes: to increase opportunities for in-country co-production and to find new commercial avenues for marketing and distributing Italian films abroad. Attracting interest from various regions of the globe, tours also offer a glimpse into Italy’s changing domestic and foreign policy and the emergence of Rome as an international movie Mecca.  

Many are the examples in the early 1960s. In June 1961, a Brazilian film delegation, in Rome for the Brazilian Film Week, visited Incom’s modern studio complex. In October of the same year, the president of Argentina’s national film institute Enrique Taurel and a film delegation, after an audience with the Pope at Vatican City and various meetings with the Italian film industry association ANICA, were shown around the Cinecittà sets of Cleopatra (AdS, 27 Oct 1961: 1). In November 1962 Pakistan’s Minister of Education and Information Fazlul Quader Chowdhury visited Cinecittà to restart talks of co-production between the two countries (AdS, 15 Nov1962: 4).

Built on the outskirts of Rome between the late 1950s and the early 1960s, producer Dino De Laurentiis’ imposing new facilities (known as Dinocittà) soon rivalled Rome’s aging film studios. Visits took place one after another, including that of a French film delegation in October 1964, a Scandinavian film delegation in November 1964, and the Spanish Minister of Information and Tourism Manuel Fraga Iribarne in December 1965. These tours played a significant part in De Laurentiis’ wide-ranging financing and promotional campaigns, serving to establish and strengthen links with major international investors and to generate media frenzy for his ambitious projects such as the religious epics Barabbas (1961) and The Bible: In the Beginning (1966). 

Having a good time?

If foreign guests attracted publicity to the studios, so did film stars, who were amply used as a vehicle to promote film business in Italy. The presence of charismatic and attractive women, in particular, enriched studios’ aura of fascination and reinforced their status symbol. Several actresses appear in press photoshoots of Italian studio tours of the 1950s and 1960s. One example is Lucia Bosé, photographed at Titanus in the company of RKO’s vice president Philip Reisman (a veteran of Italian film studio tours!) and European manager Joe Belford (AdS, 6 Nov 1951: 3). Owning the foreign distribution rights for Miracle in Milan(1951) and Roma Ore 11 (1952), RKO’s representatives were in Rome to secure further business deals.

Bosé and RKO’s reps at Titanus

Film fans or young girls aspiring to have a career in film were also lured into the studios via a number of beauty contests and prize competitions conducted by fan magazines under film industry patronage. Here is one telling example. In September 1949 the Araldo dello Spettacolo published news of Patricia Patrick’s visit to Cinecittà as guest of Universalia’s film producer Salvo D’Angelo. The 21 year-old-model had recently been elected Miss Cinémonde by a French jury of film actors and directors and was rewarded with a trip to Rome and London (where she was chaperoned by Arthur Rank). If up to 1949 the prize offered by Cinémonde was a trip to Hollywood, in 1949 the desirable destination became Rome ‘because the Mecca has moved here, and the trip costs a lot less’ conceded the Araldo (24-26 Sept 1949: 2). 

Miss Cinémonde 1949  

It is hard to say how these foreign studio tours were envisioned to practically support young women in pursuit of a career in film and fashion, and whose commercial (and unrelated business) interests these trips ultimately served. Commenting on the experience in Hollywood of Janine Marsay, the winner of the 1948 Cinémonde competition, Box Office’s critic keenly remarked that while acting as the girl’s escort, RKO Radio advisers were also ‘generally showing her [Marsay] a good time’ (15 May 1948: 57). One can hauntingly speculate what ‘to be shown a good time’ might have actually meant for a young (and likely vulnerable) woman navigating for the first time a foreign environment alone, under the auspices of male film industry ‘advisors’.    

From sound stage to world stage

Affirming their cultural and social capital at home and abroad, Italian studio tours reflect the changing relationship that Italy’s film industry established with the print and screen media, with the powers that be and with society at large. If, in 1930s Italy, studio tours signalled a turn towards the development of a more solid production infrastructure and of new film commerce opportunities, studio activities were soon to be curbed by Mussolini’s autarchic and warmongering policies. Post-war studio tours, on the other hand, witness Italy’s unprecedented film-industrial growth and establish Rome as a global film-tourism destination. 

Studio tours speak of the different ways in which the cinema industry exercised its sphere of influence far beyond the boundaries of the studios and their immediate film-industrial purposes. As mediated, symbolic and experiential encounters, tours offer an insight into film studios’ glocality. Opening their doors to a selected few, but reaching a vast audience through sponsored media channels, 20th-century film studios sought to project their industrial, cultural and diplomatic role onto the world stage, striving to become global players while being firmly rooted in their locality. 

Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank the Modi, Memorie e Culture della produzione cinematografica italiana 1949-1976 project (MIUR-funded PRIN 2017, PI Prof. Mariapia Comand, University of Udine, Italy) for granting access to their digitised film press resources.

References

Anon., ‘Fuori programma’, Cinema Illustrazione, 29 September 1937, 12.

Anon., ‘RKO Planning to Gird Globe With Branches’, Motion Picture Daily, 28 October 1937, 1, 3.

Anon., ‘Fuori programma’, Cinema Illustrazione, 10 August 1938, 10.

Anon., untitled, Araldo dello Spettacolo, 23 June 1949, 3.

Anon., untitled, Araldo dello spettacolo, 27 June 1949, 2.

Anon., ‘Miss Cinémonde 1949 a Roma’, Araldo dello spettacolo, 24-26 September 1949, 2.

Anon., ‘Il congresso annuale della Titanus’, Araldo dello Spettacolo, 15 September 1949, 1.

Anon., ‘Rappresentanti del governo siriano visitano gli stabilimenti LUCE’, Cinespettacolo October 1950, 18.

Anon., ‘Reisman a Roma per la produzione italiana’, Araldo dello Spettacolo, 6 November 1951, 3.

Anon., ‘Negli incontri italo-argentini riaffermata la possibilità di accordi di coproduzione’, Araldo dello Spettacolo, 27 October 1961, 1.

Anon., ‘Un ministro pakistano visita Cinecittà’, Araldo dello Spettacolo, 15 November 1962, 4.

Ivan Spear, ‘Spearheads’, Box Office, 15 May 1948, 57.

Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr, ‘If the Windsors Had Come to Hollywood’, Photoplay, January 1938, 12-13, 72.

Touring the French studios

By Morgan Lefeuvre

Closed to the public – which gave them a dose of mystery and enhanced their appeal – the French studios welcomed throughout the period (and particularly in the 1930s) many representatives of the press, but also of political, economic or social circles. The studio visits, often reported in detail in the press, served several purposes. These varied according to the period but also according to who organised them: the studio management, an independent producer, or even bodies outside the film production community.

At the beginning of the 1930s, the transition to sound led to a profound renewal of the French cinematographic landscape, prompting studio managers to organise more and more studio tours for the press, to promote the excellence of their technical facilities. These sumptuous receptions almost all followed the same protocol: journalists were driven by coach from the centre of Paris to the studio where they were welcomed by a few representatives of the management and were then invited to visit the installations, before attending a screening and sharing a cocktail, or possibly a lunch. Here is how Marcel Carné, then a journalist for Cinémagazine, related the tour organised by the management of the Tobis studios in Epinay-sur-Seine in November 1929:

The coach has left Paris, and while the conversations are going on, the industrial landscapes of the northern suburbs pass by. […] At last we arrive, after the coach has turned into a small provincial street, calm and quiet. […] The dead leaves crunch under our feet as we get out of the vehicle. We inevitably pose in front of the photographer, click and already the kind and erudite technician A. P. Richard takes possession of our persons and leads us to the projection cabin [Cinémagazine, 8 November 1929, p. 214].

Although all the studios organised press receptions to show their new sound installations or present their productions, these receptions took on a remarkable importance in the biggest ones. They were particularly frequent at the Paramount studios in Saint-Maurice and the Pathé studios in Joinville, where journalists generally came in large numbers (several Pullmans were sometimes chartered for the occasion), partly because they were guaranteed to meet famous actors and to be served lunch, whereas the smaller studios generally only offered them a drink! Some privileged people sometimes visited the installations in smaller groups, or even alone in the company of a director, a scriptwriter, or a technician from the studio, who they were always proud to point out was a personal acquaintance. As a journalist from the Revue de Paris, who had come to visit Paramount Studios, reported with a touch of pride: ‘We find ourselves in front of an iron door of a suburban factory that can only be opened thanks to the signature of my companion Yves Mirande [Revue de Paris du 13 December 1932].

Although the first receptions organised during 1930 were mainly aimed at promoting the technical quality of the new installations, from the end of 1931 Pathé and Paramount organised press conferences at the studio in order to communicate on the good health of their company. While activity at Joinville slowed down considerably between December 1931 and February 1932 (with two weeks of complete closure), Pathé’s management organised a large reception on 19 February, inviting the press to spend a full day at the studio with a programme of three screenings and a lunch in the company of the most popular stars: Gaby Morlay, Marcelle Chantal, Simone Cerdan, Ginette d’Yd, Victor Francen and Charles Vanel. The day ended with a cocktail party before the journalists returned to Paris by coach. As no shooting was in process, no set visits were organised and the reception took place exclusively between the projection rooms and the studio bar-restaurant [La Cinématographie française, 27 February 1932, p. 14 and Ciné-Journal, 26 February 1932, p. 9]. These types of receptions organised for the press had the function of reassuring film professionals and silencing the negative rumours that were sure to spread at the slightest sign of a loss of momentum in production. The reporter of La Cinématographie française seemed to be quite seduced, as indicated in the conclusion of his report: ‘In summary, good day, good work, fast and easy, in a silence respected by professional people, and three good films. In a next meeting, we will see Les Croix de bois, which everyone is waiting for impatiently’ [La Cinématographie française, 27 February 1932, p. 14]. At Paramount, a similar meeting was organized on June 24, 1931, in order to cut short the rumors of the closure of the Saint-Maurice studios [La Cinématographie française, 27 June 1931, p. 62].

Visitors in the yard of the Pathé studios in Joinville during the National Cinema Days in 1931 – © Fondation Jérôme Seydoux Pathé

From 1929 onwards, and increasingly after 1933, press receptions were also organised in the studios by independent producers. Unlike the previous category, the aim here was not to showcase the studio itself, but rather a film, or possibly a production programme. These shorter receptions – no more than an hour or two – were often organised at the end of shooting in order to prepare for the promotion of the film, before its release on the screens. In September 1931, Super-Film, a rental and distribution company that had just started producing, organised a small reception in the Éclair studios in Épinay, on the set of its last film Prisonnier de mon cœur directed by Jean Tarride.

The journalists, received by MM. Weill, Chicherio and André Brûlé, were led into the studio where an amusing set by Meerson, representing a provincial prison, stood. Roland Toutain and Mary Glory performed a short scene from Prisonnier de mon cœur. Then Roland Toutain improvised an amusing little speech of welcome; Mr. Chicherio, the general secretary, explained what Super-Film was doing at present and what it intended to do: three new films to be made in two or three months. After a toast to the prosperity of Super-Film, the meeting ended [La Cinématographie française, 5 September 1931, p. 13].

Although these shots taken in the presence of the press were more staged than real, spontaneous work, the unpolished setting of the studio provided journalists with the feeling of seeing the work in progress, of entering into the secrets of creation, which gave their articles an additional attraction for the reader.

The studio also welcomed a wide variety of parties and receptions, the only purpose of which was to get people talking about both the studio’s directors and their prestigious visitors. People came to the studio to show themselves off, just as they would at the theatre or at an exhibition opening. In January 1930, a delegation of ‘personalities from the world of arts, literature and theatre’ visited the Joinville studios:

On Tuesday, Miss France 1930, accompanied by numerous personalities from the world of Arts, Letters and Theatre, visited the Pathé-Natan studios in Joinville.

Miss France 1930 attended the sound and talking shots of a scene from L’Enfant de l’amour, currently being directed by Marcel L’Herbier[…]. This visit of the most beautiful woman in France to the most beautiful studios in Europe was highly commented on [La Cinématographie française, 11 January 1930, p. 38].

This ‘pure courtesy’ visit had no other objective than to get the word out about the Pathé studios, beyond film circles, by feeding the society columns of the newspapers. A few weeks earlier, the winners of a beauty contest organised by Paris-Midi and Le Journal were received on the set of Augusto Genina’s Prix de Beauté, also in Joinville [La Cinématographie française, 5 October 1929, p. 15]. Among these numerous visits for free, the press regularly mentions actors who have come to see a few shots of a film directed by a ‘director friend’ or in which a ‘comrade’ was filming. The must was to be able to welcome a French star back from Hollywood, or even an American actor, to the set. La Cinématographie française presents as a great event, the visit of Cecil B. De Mille and Gary Cooper to the Saint-Maurice studios in July 1931, where they were accompanied by the French Minister of Public Education and Fine Arts, Mario Roustan [La Cinématographie française, 1st August 1931, p. 23]. Studio managers are quick to seize any chance they get to throw a party or an event that draws attention to their facilities. Whether it’s a visit to a monumental set, a scene with a lot of extras or the installation of new equipment, anything is considered an opportunity to invite the press and, if possible, the stars of the screen to spend a festive moment at the studio.

Cecil B. De Mille and Gary Cooper visit the Paramount Studios in Saint-Maurice near Paris in July 1931

Over time, the objectives of these tours and receptions diversified, with the studios regularly being used to help the country’s political, economic and commercial influence. Throughout the 1930s, many French and foreign politicians were welcomed to the Paris studios. The ministers responsible for the film industry (trade, fine arts, public education) but also members of parliament were regularly invited, mainly to Pathé and Paramount. If studio directors hoped to interest politicians in the functioning of production and to encourage them to defend the interests of the film industry in Parliament, French leaders also relied on the studios to highlight the technological and commercial dynamism of our industries in the eyes of foreign diplomats. The major Parisian studios thus welcomed many foreign delegations on official visits. The Ambassadors of Italy and Argentina, the Consuls of China and Egypt, the Resident General of Morocco, the Mayor of Tunis, the son of the King of Ethiopia and the Crown Prince of Morocco (then aged four!), all visited the Paramount and Pathé studios between June 1930 and August 1932. The purpose of these tours seems more diplomatic than economic. It was not directly a question of selling technology or films, but of honouring a friendly nation by receiving its representatives in what was then considered one of the jewels of French industry in terms of technical innovation and cultural influence.

Official visit of the Bey of Tunis and Prince Sidi Hassan (future King Hassan II of Morocco) to the Joinville studios in 1932 – © Fondation Jérôme Seydoux Pathé

Reserved for a few hand-picked personalities at the beginning of the 1930s, studio visits gradually opened up to a wider public, as their weight within the French film industry diminished. From the 1930s, visits were sometimes organised for members of associations or works councils. On 16 February 1935, members of the ‘Stenographic Alliance’ were welcomed to Joinville for a paid guided tour of the facilities [Bulletin trimestrielle de l’Alliance sténographique, January 1935, p. 3]. Each secretary was asked to pay 3 francs for a brief visit to the dream factory! At the end of the decade, the ‘Club des amis de Pour Vous’, a film magazine with a large circulation, regularly organised studio visits for its members, which were very successful [Pour Vous, 3 May 1939, p. 6]. In war time, tours of the studios began to be offered to the public to raise funds for various causes. During the Semaine du Cinéma, organised by the COIC, nearly 1,500 visitors flocked to the Saint-Maurice and Rue Francoeur studios to visit the facilities. The proceeds from these paid visits (10 Frs per person in 1941) were then donated to the POW relief fund [Aujourd’hui, 12 June 1941, p. 2]. After the war, the tradition continued and it was to help unemployed entertainment workers that the Buttes Chaumont studios opened their doors to visitors on Sunday 4 March 1945. Several hundred people came to visit the sumptuous medieval sets created by Max Douy for the film François Villon [Le Film français, 9 March 1945, p. 12]. Increasingly dilapidated and ageing, French studios no longer attracted foreign diplomats or Hollywood stars, but opened their doors to a public still keen to catch a glimpse for a few francs beyond the screen.

The public visits the sets of the film François Villon at the Buttes Chaumont studios – Regards, 15 March 1945

References

Anon. ‘Une journée de la presse à Joinville’, Ciné-Journal, no. 1173, 26 February 1932, p. 9.

Anon. ‘Paramount ne ralentit pas son activité en France’, La Cinématographie française, no. 660, 27 June 1931, p. 62.

Anon. ‘Miss France visite les studios Pathé’, La Cinématographie française, no. 584, 11 January 1930, p. 38.

Anon. ‘Au club des amis de Pour Vous’, Pour Vous, no. 546, 3 May 1939, p. 6.

Anon. ‘La visite des studios parisiens a obtenu un immense succès’, Aujourd’hui, 12 June 1941, p. 2.

Anon. ‘Les dimanches au studio’, Le Film français, no. 14, 9 March 1945, p.12.

Anon. [title missing] Revue de Paris du 13 December 1932. Archives BNF, coll. Rondel, RK 788.

Bulletin trimestrielle de l’Alliance sténographique, no. 116, January 1935, p. 3.

Marcel Carné,  ‘Le film parlant français – Une visite aux studios de la Tobis’, Cinémagazine, no. 45, 8 November 1929, p. 214.

Lucie Derain and Louis Saurel, ‘Studios’, La Cinématographie française, no. 665, 1 August 1931, p. 23.

J.M., ‘Prix de Beauté nous reçoit’, La Cinématographie française, no. 570, 5 October 1929, p. 15.

F. Morel, ‘Une journée aux studios Pathé-Natan’, La Cinématographie française, no. 695, 27 February 1932, p. 14.

Louis Saurel, Super-Film a reçu la presse aux studios Éclair d’Épinay’, La Cinématographie française, no. 670, 5 September 1931, p. 13.

Southall studio at war

By Richard Farmer

Southall studio

Southall studio in west London was built on the site of, and possibly converted from, a former aircraft hangar. It opened in 1924, remained largely unused until 1928, and was converted for sound production in the early 1930s (the vagueness of some of these dates is indicative of the relative paucity of detailed historical evidence as compared to some other studios). Maybe a dozen films were made between the opening of the original studio and its complete destruction by fire in October 1936, an event which led to the evacuation of nearby houses. The owners’ decision to rebuild the studio, for the princely sum of £9,666, was described by Kinematograph Weekly (KW) as ‘super-optimistic’ given that the British production sector was then deep in the clutches of one of its periodic crises and many existing studios were standing idle (Transport for London Corporate Archive: LT172/019/007; KW 12 January 1939: 112). Kine’s scepticism about the wisdom of rebuilding the studio was not entirely misplaced. Although ready to reopen in 1938, no films were made at the studio before the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939. Or, indeed, for its duration.

Southall studio after the 1936 fire (Illustrated London News, 7 November 1936)

The studio’s owners were, however, keen to get some form of return on their asset and approached various government ministries to find out if they wanted to requisition the facility for storage or manufacturing. Although many other British studios were to put to work for non-filmmaking purposes, Southall was considered surplus to government requirements. The owners then adopted a different tack and applied to the local council for an entertainments licence that would allow the studio’s single 60 x 125 ft. stage to be used as a dancehall. The hall would become known as the Locarno, and Tommy Seymour-Blackburn – a former silent-era film comedian – was installed as manager. The Locarno had a polished wood-block floor and was decorated with coloured banners and what was described as a ‘huge background of Arctic scenery’ (West Middlesex Gazette [WMG], 27 January 1940: 7). Later, a new lighting scheme and a large cafeteria with fully licensed bar were also added. A Grand Opening Ball was held on 24 January 1940. It was attended by more than 400 people who danced until midnight to music provided by a nine-piece band led by Billy Wiltshire – a former professional cyclist in South Africa – and partygoers were said to be especially taken by Roy Marsh’s sterling work on the vibraphone.

The Grand Opening Ball (WMG, 20 and 27 January 1940)

However, the Locarno was not just a dancehall. It was also a roller-skating rink capable of accommodating 500 skaters at a time. But not just any old skating – ‘glider skating’. Glider skates were thought to be ‘the Rolls-Royce of roller skates’ and differed from earlier skates in that they had rubberised wheels (Daily Mail, 23 April 1936: 12). This meant that not only were they virtually silent – making it easier to listen and dance to music while skating – they were also able to grip the floor more effectively: earlier rinks had provided grip by sprinkling the floor with powdered pumice-stone with the result that skating was usually both noisy and dusty. (Such problems no doubt contributed to the bursting of an earlier roller-skating bubble in the 1910s, after which numerous rinks were converted into cinemas and one into Twickenham studio). 

Florence Franklin – ‘professional lady instructress’ (WMG, 6 April 1940)

A ‘a professional lady instructress,’ Miss Florence Franklin, taught punters how to skate and a range of novelty events including skating exhibitions and beauty contests – the winner of Miss Southall 1940 was promised a screen-test as a prize – were held to get people through the door (WMG: 2 March 1940: 7; 11 May 1940: 2). The most important novelty was probably a series of sports matches played on skates: usually roller-football, but occasionally roller-hockey. The Locarno’s first soccer-on-wheels event, with manager Blackburn officiating in evening dress, was played out between a team called the Assassins and another called the Killers. It ended in a hard-fought 1-1 draw. Another fixture, between Locarno staff and local ARP stretcher-bearers, was abandoned after what a local newspaper called ‘a positive riot’ (Middlesex County Times [MCT], 13 April 1940: 5). Matches were played by both men’s and women’s teams and drew good crowds. 

However, local newspaper reports make clear that not everything in the Locarno’s garden was rosy. Over the summer of 1940 the venue was twice fined for failing to adequately observe the blackout, and Blackburn was shown the door in May 1940 for failing to ensure that the venue complied with statutory safety regulations. A few months later a doorman – a former professional boxer – was hauled up before the beak for breaking the nose and jaw of a customer following an argument over the cost of admission. The case was dismissed when it was found that the potential customer and his party were the worse for drink and the altercation had been preceded by them throwing bottles at the Locarno’s entrance (MCT, 24 August 1940: 2). Blackout breaches and boozy bust-ups couldn’t close the Locarno, and neither could German bombs. Advertisements from late September 1940, just a few weeks after the start of the most intense period of the London blitz noted that ‘we carry on through air-raids’ and reassured guests that the ‘all-steel frame building’ in which they would be dancing and skating was ‘splinter, blast and fireproof’ (WMG, 28 September 1940: 2).

By the end of 1940, however, the situation had changed. In November that year the studio was requisitioned by the Ministry of Aircraft Production and turned over to Fairey Aviation, an aeroplane manufacturer with a factory at nearby Hayes. This, the studio’s owners noted in a letter to the council dated 3 December 1940, ‘came as rather a financial blow’, not least because they had taken the decision to spend money converting the studio into a dancehall only after being told that it would not be needed by the government (London Metropolitan Archives: MCC/ES/EL/1/355). The Locarno would reopen a few miles away in Ealing – a London borough with better-known cinematic associations, although the suburb’s most famous filmmaking facility was not involved – after a new venue was found above the Fifty Shilling Tailors at 105 Broadway. 

The carpenters’ shop at Southall studio (KW:  26 September 1946 and 10 July 1947) 

It was more than a year after the end of the war before Southall was derequisitioned and filmmaking could resume. Dancing With Crime (1947) went on the floor in December 1946 in what was still a very recently renovated facility: ‘The studio has a fresh and clean smell about it. New paint is everywhere’ (KW – British Studio Supplement, 26 September 1946: xiii). Although there were plans to enlarge the studio when Britain’s economic situation improved, there were no cutting rooms at Southall when it reopened and the film had to be driven to a sister studio at Twickenham for editing. Despite this slow start, the fifteen years after the war marked Southall’s golden age. A second, smaller stage was opened in the early 1950s, and for the remainder of the decade the studio churned out dozens of (predominantly low-budget) films – making uncredited appearances in both Date With Disaster (1957) and Stormy Crossing (1958) – with The Trollenberg Terror (1958) the final film to be made there. The studio was also home to producers making television programmes and live-action advertisements. 

Southall studio yard, as seen in Date with Disaster (1957)

Although Southall studio was only part of the rink organisation for a brief period in 1940, exploring some of the alternate uses to which it was put should remind us that many film studios have dynamic histories, and that the large, empty, flexible spaces used for film production were equally well-suited to other purposes. 

‘Who wouldn’t want to have a peek?’ Studio Tours in Britain and Germany

Sarah Street and Eleanor Halsall

Inspired by our visit to the Bottle Yard Studios, we wanted to know more about previous occasions when film studios opened their doors to outsiders. Studios entertained important guests such as film executives, financiers, critics, members of the civil service, royalty etc., but some visitors had less obvious importance to business, publicity, studio networking or status. While keen not to destroy the illusory magic of the movies, studios occasionally showed off their facilities and celebrated the technical feats accomplished in workshops and on stages. A search in the trade press and local newspapers showed up some interesting cases of people who were allowed to see inside studios in Britain.

The British and Dominions studios, Elstree, were visited in September 1935 by some 700 film fans from Coventry, including staff at local cinemas (Kinematograph Weekly [KW], 12 Sept 1935, p. 28). The large party travelled in two trains direct to Elstree and on arrival the manager gave them an ‘exhaustive’ tour of the studios, and they were treated to a screening of the latest films’ rushes in the private theatre.

A visit by French film pioneer Leon Gaumont in February 1936 to the Gaumont British Studios, Shepherd’s Bush, was a momentous and moving occasion. He toured the large studio buildings which stood on the actual spot where the old ‘glass house’ Gaumont studio was built in 1911. Gaumont immediately recognized Mr Hobbs, a lab technician who’d started work with him there in 1911. He also met Alfred Hitchcock and told Michael Balcon, head of production: ‘I am a little envious. If only all this had happened while I was still active!’ Clearly quite overcome by his visit, Gaumont is also reported as saying: ‘It is marvellous! That I should have lived to see such development, such progress! You are doing wonderful work; the growth and expansion of the firm has been truly magnificent’ (KW, 27 Feb 1936, p. 45).

Some tours were extensive and detailed. Teddington Studios welcomed visitors from the London Court of the Guild in February 1937. They went first to the studios’ preview theatre where aspects of soundtracks, recording and re-recording were explained, with bits of equipment passed around such as an electric light valve. Then they were shown a set which replicated a deck of a cruise liner, cocktail bar, the use of mirrors to give the illusion of distance, and the details of the lighting equipment. The tour even included a visit to the power-house (KW, 11 Feb 1937, p. 53).  

In October 1944 leaders of a Russian Trades delegation visited Denham. They were entertained by Spencer Reis, managing director of D&P Studios, and visited many of the stages. They saw rushes from Henry V and extracts from films demonstrating synchronization with sound. They visited other productions in progress as well as studio trade union members (KW, 21 Oct 1944, p. 32).

A Film Criticism competition organized by Gaumont-British and Gainsborough in February 1944 rewarded prizewinners with a visit to the studios. Entrants had to write a ‘frank criticism’ of The Man in Grey (1943), and say which stories, stars and presentations should be prioritized when the war was over. Star of the film Stewart Granger gave the lucky prizewinners a tour which ended up in the studio canteen. At the head of their table was none other than Phyllis Calvert, another star of The Man in Grey, who answered ‘innumerable questions from a score of delighted listeners’. After lunch they went on the stage floors and inspected sets. They watched film tests being made and witnessed shooting scenes from Love Story (KW, 3 Feb 1944, p. 37). 

In December 1944 a party of ATS women went to Islington Studios and met George Formby. They had a tour and showed ‘keen interest’ in the building of the sets, cutting rooms, technical departments, and the make-up room. The party was accompanied by a lecturer in adult education who specialized in early motion pictures (KW, 21 Dec 1944, p. 29). 

Sometimes the studios went out to the people…

In July 1946 Elstree Studios were reported as ‘going on tour’ (KW, 11 July 1946, p. 6). As a result of a tie-up between British National and Lewis’s (the shop with branches in many places), British National Studios went on tour, starting in Birmingham and then going to stores in Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Leicester. The exhibition’s major feature was filming a sequence from Meet the Navy: ‘A huge mass of studio equipment will move to the various centres in a fleet of big motor vans, carrying cameras, lights, sets, movieolas, microphones, sound apparatus, and all the other paraphernalia that go to the making of movies. Each store will be turned into a studio, with technicians, to the number of some 20, in attendance’. Actual filming was then carried out ‘when the lights will go up against a background of the Coney Island scene from Meet the Navy, with a troupe of actors reproducing the ‘Lydia’ numbers from the picture. Every detail of film making, from the initial script conference, the casting, planning, shooting, and final editing and screening, will be shown either by diagrams and stills or with the actual equipment demonstrated and operated by Elstree technicians’. Scripts, costumes, stills, set design stills and souvenirs from a dozen British National films were also shown. A cartoon (KW, 18 July 1946, p. 14) captured the incongruous spectacle of this somewhat unusual event.

Visits to German Studios

Acquiring and maintaining a high profile with the public was an obvious objective for film studios. In the case of Germany’s Babelsberg, this meant carefully managing access to busy working studios while attempting to retain an air of mystique around the process of movie production. The 1929 construction of the nation’s first sound film studio – the so-called Tonkreuz at Babelsberg – stoked interest in Germany and abroad. Nevertheless, offering every interested person the opportunity to visit the new studio was clearly neither practical nor desirable.

Visitors came via a number of conduits – from official government requests, to magazine competitions offering a lucky winner the chance to see the studios and meet the stars (see, for example, our blog on Eating in the Studio). Educational visits were aimed at teaching the public about film production, along the way triggering interest in those who might aspire to a film career. And there were visits by foreign dignitaries and reporters, as well as stars from other film industries. One such foreign visitor was Film India’s editor, Baburao Patel who, in the spring of 1939, went on a world tour of film industries. Having originally planned a two-day visit to Berlin, he extended this to ten days, spending much of it at Babelsberg, so fascinated was he by what he discovered there.

‘We were first taken to the Lehrschau,’ wrote Patel, ‘The museum or rather the exhibition of the Ufa Studios. Here in a pretty big room, every activity of Ufa is seen either in a pretty model or in a precise paper drawing.’ (Film India, September 1939, p. 30.) Located at Babelsberg, the Lehrschau was an educational centre, archive and library providing visitors with the chance to see cameras in close up as well as models of film sets. Accounts were kept of all visitors and a snapshot from May 1938 includes 13 Chilean scientists and artists; one Swedish journalist; and two of Agfa’s Indian clients from Calcutta who expressed particular interest in cinematography. The lists of visitors were long and varied, carefully documenting the totals for this particular month: 210 visitors, of whom 36 were foreigners. (BArch R109-I/5268).

As gleaned from archived meeting minutes, Ufa took steps to create public enthusiasm and educate visitors, while holding the inquisitive majority at bay. One way it did this was to offer a proxy visit by film with Der Schuß im Tonfilmatelier/The shot in the sound film studio (Zeisler, 1930). The film’s action is set in the new studio, using the sets, the stars’ dressing rooms, and the vertiginous lighting bridges, and making good use of the building’s interconnected spaces. ‘Who wouldn’t want to have a peek?’ asked the Berliner Film Zeitung in its review of Schuß (30 July 1930). The film’s dual purpose was to show off this architectural marvel of modernity but also to explain the wonder of sound film creation, adding a dose of artistic exaggeration along the way to enhance the plot! While the film was in production Ufa permitted Eugen Szatmari from the Berliner Tageblatt to hold an on-set interview with Gerda Maurus, the film’s leading actress; this was then screened in Ufa’s cinemas alongside the feature film (Mein Film, June 1930, p. 6).

Wall detail

Ufa’s board frequently discussed and approved studio visits. For example, on 26 February 1935, a request came from 50 students from the University of Lund who wanted to see the Lehrschau. Their visit was approved, on the condition that they were not allowed to see anything of the production of Das Mädchen Johanna (Uckicky, 1935). One wonders what might have led to this decision? (BArch R109-I/1030a).

On 19 May 1937, the board approved up to 120 members of a Hungarian business trip to visit the Lehrschau and Babelsberg (BArch R 109-I/1032b) which must have been quite an undertaking. But it was perhaps the request that came in September that year that allows the imagination to run wild. The board discussed and approved a request by the newly elected state president of Colombia who wished to visit Babelsberg completely incognito (BArch R 109-I/1032b). One wonders whether he might have achieved this via a quick visit to the costume and make-up department on the way! 

We’ll be looking at occasions when French and Italian studios allowed visitors through their doors in a future post.

References

Baburao Patel, ‘German Film Industry’, Film India, September 1939, p.p. 27-37.

Bundesarchiv, Berlin files: BArch R109-I/1030a; BArch R 109-I/1032b; BArch R109-I/5268.  

Ceha, ‘Von deutscher Tonfilmarbeit: sechshundert Presseleute aus aller Welt in Neu-Babelsberg’, Mein Film, June 1930, p. 6.

FS, ‘Der Schuß im Tonfilmatelier’, Berliner Film Zeitung, 30 July 1930.

Kinematograph Weekly, 12 Sept 1935, p. 28; 27 Feb 1936, p. 45; 3 Feb 1944, p. 37; 21 Oct 1944, p. 32; 21 Dec 1944, p. 29; 11 July 1946, p. 6; 18 July 1946, p. 14.

The studio as star: Teddington

By Richard Farmer

Weir(d) House, Teddington

Many film studios appear in films. Of these, some feature as film studios, such as when MGM-British was transformed into the home of Commonwealth Pictures in The Intimate Stranger (1956) or Denham’s similarly pseudonymised cameos in both Thursday’s Child (1943) or We’ll Smile Again (1942). More common, though, are cases where parts of studios are passed off as other kinds of building. Here, we might point to Beaconsfield’s appearance in 1954’s Orders are Orders, where the sound stage became an army camp gymnasium – which, ironically, is then used in the film as a temporary studio by Ed Waggermeyer, an American producer played with great gusto by Sid James – or Pinewood’s Heatherden Hall, which has appeared variously as SPECTRE headquarters in From Russia with Love (1963), the governor’s mansion in Carry On Up the Khyber (1968) and a stand-in for Buckingham Palace in Wombling Free (1977) as well as being cast according to type as a country house in Crackerjack and The Ware Case (both 1938).  

Teddington studios in The Galloping Major (1951)

Teddington studios, in west London, was also no stranger to the limelight – it became Rosedale studios in The Galloping Major (1951) – and parts of the studio and its grounds featured in numerous films. The studio was built in the grounds of Weir House, a late-Georgian, 40-room property on the banks of the Thames that after it became associated with film production was dubbed “Weird House” by some locals ‘in view if the somewhat unusual activities that seemed to go on there’ (Newman and Tasker: 5). In 1930, the house was transformed into a residential club aimed at ‘members of the cinematograph industry’ – its proximity to central London’s filmland as much a part of its appeal as its miniature golf course and badminton courts (Kinematograph Weekly [KW], 19 June 1930: 23). Exterior filming had taken place in the grounds at Weir House ‘from the earliest pioneer days,’ but the studio-proper was established in 1916 and frequently expanded and developed thereafter (Chibnall: 692). A devastating fire in October 1929 gutted the existing glass-house facility – panes falling from its glazed roof made it more difficult to fight the blaze – and necessitated extensive rebuilding. This would not be the last time that Teddington went up in flames or was otherwise damaged: there was another fire in 1935, and in July 1944 a V-1 rocket killed studio manager Doc Salomon and two other employees and destroyed parts of the site. 

Map of bomb damage at Teddington (l) and damage to carpenters’ shop (r)

Warner Brothers-First National, an American production and distribution company, took over the site in 1932 so that it might produce low-budget British films and so comply with its quota obligations. It laid out £100,000 improving and further modernising the studio in what one contemporary observer thought to be a sensitive manner: 

Did they dot the lawns with hideous outbuildings? They did not. […] Did they line the pleasant riverbank with concrete or build stone walls where before had been rough hedges of privet? They did not. They left the grounds as they were.

World Film Encyclopaedia: 392-3

Whilst this approach, and the employment of ‘skilled gardeners’ to maintain the grounds, might have provided ‘players [with] a pleasaunce wherein to walk in the cool of the evening when the day’s shooting is done’ (ibid.), it also stemmed from practical economics: having a well-manicured outdoor space immediately outside the sound-stage made filming certain types of bucolic exterior much easier and cheaper. 

Even before the WB-FN takeover, writers employed at the studio were encouraged to develop stories that could make use of the river and the weir that gave the house its name, and on occasion furniture from Weir House was incorporated into films made at Teddington (Leslie: 10; Newman and Tasker: 6). The weir can be seen in both Cocaine/While London Sleeps (1922) and Crime Unlimited (1935) and the house, which was demolished in March 1937, also features in the latter of these films. The weir and the river made for appealing backdrops but could be noisy, often interfering with the microphone during early sound film exteriors shot at Teddington (Leslie: 10).

Weir House in Crime Unlimited (1935) – composite image

Given that economy was very often the watchword of producers working at Teddington (Chibnall: 717), as it was for most filmmakers in Britain tasked with churning out low-budget ‘quota quickies’, it comes as no surprise that the exteriors of many studio buildings regularly featured in films produced there. They were in close proximity to equipment stores, did not require complex logistical processes to access, while also allowing filming to continue inside the sound stage should the weather not permit outdoor shooting. What is interesting, however, is that some of the buildings at Teddington were designed specifically so as to permit on-site exterior photography – the canteen, for example, was given a flat roof to provide the camera crew with a ‘grand stand’ view when shooting down into the studio’s street from a high angle. There were other advantages: ‘a false house front is so easy to build from the flat roof and upper storeys [can be] added with the utmost stability and realism’ (KW, 27 April 1939: 51). 

Sound stage entrance in They Drive By Night (l) and They Met in the Dark (r)

In other cases, buildings were erected so as to be both photogenic and adaptable, meaning that they could be dressed differently and re-used in multiple films. When the new sound stage was erected in 1936, its main entrance, ‘with its semi-circular sweep of canopy and steps leading to a revolving doorway’, was ‘designed for use as an external set, such as an hotel entrance … or a block of flats’ – a photograph of the stage entrance in Architects’ Review shows it dressed as the offices of the Continental Dispatch air-mail company (KW, 28 May 1936: 47; Roberts: 79). The distance between the stage and the main administration building that ran parallel to it was intentionally left wide enough ‘to accommodate all necessary cameras, booster lights and crew without seriously impeding traffic’ (KW, 28 May 1936: 47). Films that made use the sound-stage’s exterior include They Met in the Dark (1943), for which the entrance was transformed into the Hotel Monopole, and They Drive By Night (1938), where it became a palais de danse. 

Sound stage as shop front in They Drive By Night

In this latter film, the stage’s large ground-floor windows can also be seen acting as both shop windows and, boarded over, as advertising hoardings on the outside wall of the dancehall. Here, even though the camera movement that captures the space is ostensibly similar – a tracking pan from right to left – we get a sense of how changes to props, on-screen weather and the speed with which the camera moves encourage us to see the building in different ways, and so convince the viewer that they are looking at two different places. The windows of the ‘6d Stores,’ seen on a rainy night, are staged to create a sense of depth, showing off such items as canned foods, cups and plates under bright diegetic lights; advertising for the palais, on the other hand, is staged essentially two-dimensionally, with posters pasted onto the flat surface of a wall and depth instead provided by a post box and a lamppost that pass by in the foreground of the shot. Each shot only lasts a few seconds, but great care has evidently been taken to develop comprehensively different versions of the same 50-ft. stretch of wall, on the other side of which, beyond the camera’s gaze, could be found a scene dock and accommodation for the studio’s sound van.  

Carpenters’ shop architectural elevation (Richmond Local Studies Archive: PLA00855) and as in They Drive By Night

They Drive by Night also shows off another part of the studio designed to function as an exterior set. When the carpenters’ shop was extended as part of the 1936-37 expansion, it was constructed so that its longer western wall resembled a short street, constructed from a range of different aged and shaped buildings to give the impression that it had grown over time, while its northern wall, which faced the Thames, provided a ‘more or less Grecian elevation’. The scheme was approved in July 1936, despite the objections of B. R Davidge, who was employed by Teddington Urban District Council as a Town Planning consultant: ‘The design for the carpenter’s shop extension appears to be unnecessarily elaborate and rather suggests that it is being built up of surplus sets no longer required for filming purposes’ (Davidge). Davidge appears to have fundamentally misunderstood the purpose of the workshop’s unusual exterior. When completed the newly enlarged building was ready to step into the background, and can be seen in They Drive by Night, shot at an oblique angle, with props such as a poster for a boxing bout and a sign for the ‘Pins and Needles Club’ adding a touch of local colour. In the back of the shot, a flat has been erected perpendicular to the street, provide greater depth and solidity to the illusory urban scene and blocking out the grounds that ran down to the Thames. I have not yet identified any cinematic appearances by the river-facing ‘Grecian elevation,’ but would be very interested to hear from anyone who has, or from anyone who has spotted studio buildings in any other films made at Teddington.

Carpenters’ shop: ‘Grecian elevation’ (Richmond Local Studies ArchiveL PLA00855)

References

B. R. Davidge, letter to E. Bostock, 26 June 1936. Richmond Local Studies Archive, file PLA 00855.

Steve Chibnall, ‘Hollywood-on-Thames: the British productions of Warner Bros.–First National, 1931–1945’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 39:4 (2019), pp. 687-724.

Malcolm Newman and John Tasker, The Story of Teddington Studios (Print Inc.: Teddington, 2002).

Cecilie Leslie, ‘Dark deeds at Teddington studio’, Film Weekly, 9 January 1932, p. 10.

A. Stanley Roberts, ‘Film studios, Teddington’, Architects’ Journal, January 1937, p. 79.

World Film Encyclopedia, edited by Clarence Winchester (London: Amalgamated Press, 1933).

‘The rats have eaten my set!’ Letters from a German film architect in 1930s India

By Eleanor Halsall

On the 21st of March 1935, a young German stepped off the boat in Bombay. His name was Karl von Spreti and he had been offered a job managing set design at The Bombay Talkies, one of India’s newest film studios. ‘The task that awaits me is huge and I hope I will accomplish it’, he wrote to his parents during the long journey from Munich (9 March 1935). In the early twentieth century, German technicians and large production companies such as Ufa and Emelka, were recognised among the world leaders, even receiving recommendations from MGM’s representative in India, George Mooser. Advising the Indian Cinematograph Committee (an enquiry set up by the British in 1927 to develop filmmaking in India), Mooser recommended [to select] ‘Indians that you think would be most susceptible to training, send them to Germany first and then arrange for the technical men to come back with these Indians, because Indians will absorb a certain amount of technique and the working of the studios there if you have access to Ufa.’ (17 November 1927, ICCE)

Karl von Spreti. With kind permission from Heinrich von Spreti

Indians travelled abroad, mostly to America, France and, occasionally, Britain; but it was to Germany that many of them turned for expertise in filmmaking. Some, such as Krishna Hirlekar, worked in the associated industries of Agfa and Siemens; others, such as Mohan Bhavnani, picked up work with individual cameramen (Halsall, 2021). It was the Bengali lawyer, Himansu Rai, who became the most well-known in Europe, producing The Light of Asia (1925) with Emelka and Shiraz (1928) and A Throw of Dice (1929) with Ufa; all three films were directed by Franz Osten. After working at Ufa’s Babelsberg site and subsequently at London’s Stoll studios for the production of the Hindi/English dual language production, Karma (Freer-Hunt, 1933), Rai and his wife, Devika Rani, returned to India, where they set up their own studio in 1934. 

Himansu Rai on cover of Film-Magazin

From 1928-1930, the Rais had spent many months at Ufa’s Babelsberg site and its model of a modern and comprehensive film production unit appears to have influenced their plans. Devika Rani told the press that they intended to ‘take to Bombay European technical experts, photographers, make-up men, but [to] simultaneously employ our own people to learn how these things are done’ (Times of India, 5 June 1933). Five foreigners were recruited – four Germans and one Briton. Each of them was assigned a managerial role, heading up their individual specialisations. Lead director Franz Osten and cameraman Josef Wirsching had already arrived; Willy Zolle, a German laboratory technician, had been working elsewhere in Bombay, and Len Hartley was a British sound engineer who had recently worked on George Formby’s Off The Dole (1935).  A French make-up artist, Madame Andrée, married to sound engineer Savak Vacha, later completed the European personnel.

The Rais rented premises at Malad, some twenty kilometres north-west of Bombay (now Mumbai), acquiring a plot that included a large bungalow set in a twenty-one acre greenfield site with gardens and an orchard. ‘We drove down a bumpy sandy path, arriving at our destination after some 100 metres’ wrote von Spreti, ‘a guard in khaki uniform stood at the gate, and beckoned us in. We drove through a very beautiful garden and stopped in front of a palatial building that had belonged to a maharajah’ (22 March 1935). Von Spreti was impressed with the beauty and scale of the garden: ‘when I look out of my window I can imagine myself in a botanical garden.’ It was idyllic, but he soon found himself facing quite different challenges to those he had experienced during his training at Emelka’s Geiselgasteig studios outside Munich. ‘There are difficulties presented to first class film production in this country which do not exist in more congenial climates’ stated the Times of India reporting on a visit by the Governor of Bombay to the new film studios of The Bombay Talkies (17 May 1935). Heat, humidity, dust and water are some of the challenges the newspaper described; marauding wildlife, malaria, striking workers and communal unrest were not mentioned.

After completing a foundation diploma in architecture at Munich’s Technical University, von Spreti had worked at Emelka as a trainee film architect under the tutelage of that studio’s long established film architect, Willy Reiber. Now in India, his task was to kit out the new studio, buy in supplies of materials and props, design the sets and organise teams of workers to carry out his instructions, a level of responsibility he would undoubtedly not have achieved as rapidly had he remained at Geiselgasteig. ‘I immediately went to see the studio, which was very nice, but there was not a single piece of furniture, not a single wall, nothing at all. I have to start buying nails and tools, and on 1 April they already want to start filming. Simply impossible!’ (21 March 1935).  

Nevertheless, a few weeks later the Governor of Bombay was able to view ‘a magnificent studio equipped with all the most up to date appliances to expedite the moving of scenery, the mobility of cameras, the lighting of the sets […] beyond this giant thickly padded sound studio is a small projecting theatre in which scenes are shown to the chief executives but a few hours after being shot. Further over are dressing rooms for the artistes and a music room for orchestral rehearsals. There is an up to date laboratory for the development, fixing, drying, cutting and synchronisation of films. No expense has been spared to ensure efficiency, no money has been wasted on lavishness.’ (The Times of India, 17 May 1935). Actor Dilip Kumar later commented that the premises also boasted ‘a library, a dispensary [and] a canteen run by the famous Brandons’ (Screen, 5 October 1984).

Furnishing a studio ready for filming was one thing; managing Malad’s exotic wildlife quite another! Von Spreti had barely settled in before he wrote ‘on Friday afternoon there was a big hunt here as two snakes were killed, one 2 ½ m the other 1.80-2m’ (1 April 1935). More would follow: ‘Yesterday I found out that the snake we caught in the house at the beginning of April […] is more dangerous than the cobra, although it is much smaller. If you are bitten by it, you go crazy in 24 hours and there is nothing that can be done’ (14 June 1935). Snakes were not the only danger: ‘yesterday a worker in the laboratory was bitten by a scorpion and had to go straight to the doctor. On Saturday we had the pleasure of killing six snakes at once’ (19 May 1935). And those destructive rodents? Having made preparations for their first film, Jawani-ki-hawa (Spirit of Youth), von Spreti complained bitterly: ‘The rats, those brutes, ate my film set because they got a taste for the papier maché. Now, as long as I still need this set, I have to leave a night watch in the studio’ (15 July 1935).

My colleague Richard has written about the impact of fog on British studios; in Bombay, von Spreti had to deal with heavy monsoon rains and high humidity. The rains had arrived around the middle of June, after which he used a typewriter for his letters because ‘writing [by hand] on damp paper was unpleasant’ (19 June 1935). The humidity reached into everywhere and everything in the studio: ‘I always keep the studio doors closed and have threatened the workers with dismissal if they leave them open […] but when work is going on, the lamps radiate so much heat that the humidity evaporates’ (19 June 1935). His work at Geiselgasteig had prepared him for rain, however: ‘The outdoor shots that were taken yesterday were greatly interrupted by rain showers, and the Indians are pretty much hanging their heads, as they are not used to having to wait for the weather [to improve] even when filming. We are quite used to this from Munich’ (2 June 1936).

Jawani-ki-hawa cast list

Managing the people element of studio work was another experience altogether. For Jawani-ki-hawa von Spreti was paired with an art director whose creative skills were no compensation for his ignorance of how to design a functional film set. Von Spreti also had to adapt to different cultural norms, among them communal loyalty: ‘Yesterday was quite a stormy day, because the director was thrown out of the laboratory and all the other employees left with him’ (3 May 1935). Naturally, this aspect of collective unity brought serious problems if it happened midway through a shoot. Sometimes he had communal conflicts to contend with: ‘On Saturday a fight broke out in the workshop between two Hindus and one Christian, such that I needed to call a doctor. I dismissed them all immediately’ (23 November 1935). Von Spreti was clearly bemused when a group of Parsi men objected vociferously to the appointment of two of their women by the Studio. ‘Our film [Jawani-ki-hawa] is still not born because the Parsis continue to make trouble. Last night the film was released by the censor, after which the Parsis contacted the governor by telegraph’ (12 September 1935). A cause célèbre at the time, the dispute resulted in the resignation of three of Bombay Talkies’ Parsi board members. The women retained their positions.

The Studio’s workforce grew rapidly and by December 1936 von Spreti told his parents: ‘I have a crazy amount of work and now have 60 workers to supervise’ (10 December 1936). He took health and safety seriously. On the first day of shooting he reported: ‘We almost lost a worker who came into contact with the high voltage’ (1 April 1935). Anxious to avoid accidents, he remonstrated with Rai and Osten who wanted to carry on filming, using people who had been working all night: ‘People are too tired and the danger is too great that one of the lighting workers will fall asleep on the bridge, and if one of them falls off, then we can get terrible inconveniences from the police because of overworking the workers. This worried Rai who asked for my opinion, whereupon I absolutely voted for suspending the work, much to Osten’s fury’ (15 April 1936). In July 1937 von Spreti wrote ‘We have been working from 08:00-12:00 and 15:00-03:00, day and night for the last 3-4 weeks. No free Sunday and the same people without a shift change. No worker [in Germany] would tolerate this and neither would it be allowed’ (17 July 1937).

In 1937 von Spreti supplied three workers for Richard Eichberg’s Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb, writing that Eichberg was very satisfied with their work, which he found to be ‘as good as at home’ (undated letter). At the end of December 1937, Karl von Spreti returned to Germany, leaving the department he had established in the care of two of the people he had trained, Y. E. Hate and N. R. Acharya.  Although his early career as a film architect was overshadowed by his post-war work as a politician and diplomat, von Spreti’s personal letters to his family have revived interest in his contribution to the Bombay Talkies. This was, after all, work for which he frequently received praise: ‘Thatched cottages, complete to the last detail, and every feature typical of Indian rural life, dot the grounds to create an astonishingly realistic impression of the Indian countryside. The studio architect, von Spreti, has done his work with remarkable prevision’ (Times of India, 12 June 1936).

References

Anon, Indian Hollywood in Bombay, Times of India, 5 June 1933 (6). 

Anon, Bombay Talkies Studios: Governor’s visit, The Times of India, 17 May 1935 (12).

Anon, The Romance of An Untouchable Girl, The Times of India, 12 June 1936 (7). 

Dilip Kumar, ‘Those were my formative years,’ Screen, 5 October 1984 (6).

Eleanor Halsall, An epistolary history of Indo-German film relations, In: Zedler, 2021. 

Eleanor Halsall, Kosmopoliten, Nationalisten, Visionäre, Filmblatt, 2021-01.

Indian Cinematograph Committee Evidence (ICCE), Vol. 1 (462).

Karl von Spreti’s unpublished letters, 1935-1937.

Jörg Zedler, The Bombay Talkies Limited: Akteure – deutsche Einflüsse – kulturhistorischer Kontext, Spreti-Studien, Band 8 (Munich: Utz Verlag, 2021). 

Workers of the studios, unite!

As a number of UK sectors are currently swept by industrial action in demand for better and fairer pay and work conditions, the STUDIOTEC team collaboratively wrote this blog post which covers some historical aspects of film unionisation in the four countries of the project and highlights key episodes of industrial action supported by British, French, German and Italian film unions. We discuss examples that range from the early 1920s, a decade of profound industrial, economic and political transformation which led to the rise of authoritarian regimes in a number of European countries, to the critical aftermath of World War Two, which saw the internal restructuring of national film industries as well as their international realignment.

In the 1930s there were three main trade unions for workers in British studios: the National Association of Theatrical and Kine Employees (NATKE) representing skilled and unskilled workers in studios and cinemas including carpenters, electricians, plasterers, scenic artists, mechanics, property makers, stage hands, riggers, make-up artists and projectionists; the Association of Cine Technicians (ACT) representing cameramen, cutters, editors, art directors, production managers, assistant directors, still photographers and lab technicians; and the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) representing cinema projectionists but also electrical craftsmen, mostly sound engineers and recordists. Trade union recognition from the mid-1930s influenced wage agreements and by 1947 all three unions had secured agreements with employers. Industrial disputes tended to be intermittent rather than lasting for sustained periods of time, often involving only particular categories of workers.  

A strike organised by the ETU in April 1938 involved projectionists and studio electricians at the Gaumont-British studios at Gainsborough and Shepherd’s Bush. The strike’s effectiveness was weakened when all three unions did not unite for collective action. While the ACT instructed members not to break the strike by taking over the electricians’ work, some members of NATKE as well as the union’s leader Tom O’Brien, did not support the strike which ended with little gain (Chanan, 1976: 51). The ETU produced a pamphlet at the time of the strike. 

ETU Pamphlet

Another category of vulnerable workers were extras. Members of the newly formed Oriental Film Artistes’ Union (OFAU) marched in August 1939 from Denham Station to the Studios. They carried banners calling for Denham to book extras through the union rather than agencies which required them to pay a larger commission when hired for crowd scenes (Daily Herald, 4 Aug 1939: 9). Denham refused the union’s request and the police were called to disperse the protest. The OFAU was formed in 1938 to protect the interests of Asians working as extras as used at Denham for films such as The Drum (1938) and The Four Feathers (1939).  

Other examples of strikes affecting categories of studio labour include a brief hairdressers’ and make-up artists’ strike of NATKE members at Shepperton in 1947 when An Ideal Husband was being shot. American star Paulette Goddard brought her own stylist with her who had been granted a work permit by the Ministry of LabourThe strike involved more than 1,000 workers and was broken by a High Court injunction brought by British LionThe strike raised the issue of employing non-British labour in studios at a time when the unions were trying to secure reciprocal schemes with US unions for British workers to be similarly employed in Hollywood (Kinematograph Weekly, 3 Apr 1947: 7). Hairdressing skills were specialised, and much care was taken over the presentation of period styles in films such as An Ideal Husband. Here we see one of Shepperton’s hairdressers inspecting actors’ hair just before going on the set of An Ideal Husband. 

The 1920s were turbulent years for German industrial relations. The Weimar Republic was losing power and influence; economic collapse and hyperinflation meant that the promises of the new Republic’s post war agreement were becoming increasingly unattainable. 2.7 million men had returned injured or disabled from the war; 360,000 women had been widowed; and 900,000 children rendered fatherless; all of whom needed state support (Evans, 141). In the wake of the Hyperinflation of 1923, the Stinnes-Legien-Agreement of 1918 which had negotiated collective bargaining and the introduction of an eight hour working day was being, if not entirely dismantled, at least cut off at the knees. The policy of deflation sought to reduce prices and wages at the same time as it aimed to raise taxes and duties, putting considerable pressure on the average wage earner, let alone those without work (Deppe, 11). By March 1926, German unemployment had reached three million (Evans, 114). Worker unrest grew, with strikes and retaliatory lockouts continuing to be commonplace. That the government in 1928 gave financial support to workers locked out by the management of the iron and steel industry who had reneged on a deal to increase wages, came as a bitter pill to the employers in those industries (Evans, 115). 

What were the effects on the film industry? A brief and unsuccessful strike in the film industry in May 1920 sought to improve wages. In September 1921, the Zentralverband der Film- und Kinoangehörigen (a centralised union of film and cinema personnel) sought better rates of pay. Der Kinematograph of 18 September 1921, firmly on the side of the employers, reported that although Mayfilm GmbH and the Lubitsch-Gesellschaft initially showed some sympathy with the workers, both production companies toed the employers’ line on the basis that the strike was initiated before the deadline given to the employers had expired. The employers’ federation demanded that all workers return by 10 September, and those who did not were dismissed on the basis of unauthorised absence from work. As more than 6,000 were on strike, it is not clear how many lost their jobs and how many returned before the deadline. According to the Prager Tagblatt, the strike ended on 27 September 1921. 

Industrial unrest may have been quashed in the film industry, but strikes continued elsewhere throughout the decade, with May Day 1929 seeing violence on Berlin’s streets, resulting in 22 deaths and more than one hundred injuries. 

German studios were affected by external strikes, however, and these are referred to in Ufa board minutes. The summer of 1929 was a particularly disruptive time for Berlin’s film industry. Cinema owners were on strike against the Entertainment tax (Lustbarkeitssteuer) (Filmtechnik, 22 June 1929) and Ufa’s management board complained of the plasterers striking over wages, a reaction that Ufa proposed mitigating with a lump sum payment of RM 3,000 (R 109-I/1027b, 12 July 1929). Two months later the pipe layers were on strike, adding further delays to the building works at Babelsberg (19 September 1929).  

Although the German-language press reported on disruption in other national film industries including Britain (Badische Presse, ‘Streik in Londoner Filmatelier’ 11 July 1936), and Hollywood (Sozialdemokrat, 15 June 1937), evidence of strikes in the German industry disappears. The National Socialist regime changed the landscape by dismantling all free unions and enforcing its own, ideologically designed structure of employee representation. 

Similarly to Nazi Germany, it is not easy to find evidence of discontent as it might have existed among Italian film studio workers who opposed Mussolini’s fascist regime and its labour policies and ideology. While it was not compulsory to be a member of the fascist party to work in the Italian film industry, being a ‘tesserato’ of the Federazione nazionale fascista dei lavoratori dello spettacolo (the workers of the performing arts) or of the Federazione nazionale fascista degli industriali dello spettacolo (the industrialists) – that is, being registered as a party member and carrying a card that showed your political affiliation – could bring several advantages including free theatre and cinema membership! It is unclear how much political leverage these party unions had within the larger corporative system and whether they were actually able to promote and safeguard workers’ rights in the event of accidents and controversies arising in the workplace. A notable episode of peaceful dissent, which slightly pre-dates our 1930-60 focus, might give us an idea of what film unionization might have meant for the fascist regime.  

At 2 pm on 20th of August 1924, 700 film workers (other accounts give around 600, possibly including workers, technicians and a large number of extras) abandoned a filming site located in an area at the outskirts of Rome, known as Quadraro (the same site chosen some ten years later to build the iconic Cinecittà), where the Joppa gate, the Circus Maximus and other giant outdoor sets had been built for the filming of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s historical epic Ben Hur (Niblo 1925) (Solomon 2016). In agreement with the film’s management, the large group had left the filming site to go and lay flowers along the river Tiber to pay respect to the socialist Member of Parliament Giacomo Matteotti, whose remains were being transported out of Rome to his native town to receive burial (Quargnolo and Redi 1995:1). Notoriously, Matteotti had been kidnapped and murdered a few weeks earlier, on 10th June 1924, by a group of killers linked with the fascist secret police after the politician had bravely denounced, during a parliament speech, election frauds caused by fascist intimidation and violence.  

As described by the anonymous journalist of the socialist paper Avanti!, when some hundred workers returned to the filming site the morning after to resume their shift they were attacked and beaten up by a large group of black shirt ‘squadristi’ (fascist action squads) who raided the site with batons and guns. After the attack, the police closed down the site for reasons of public order and requested the film management to perform, against their will, a ‘selection’ of the personnel involved in the events. Allegedly, only those who enrolled in the fascist corporative unions were allowed to resume work. As protested by Avanti!, what happened was ‘an unprecedented abuse of power’, an ‘act of terrorism’ that ‘nobody will ever forget’ (qtd. Quargnolo, Redi 1995: 2-3).  

It took some twenty years for Italian film workers to take to the streets again to voice their protests against the ruling government. Film workers’ largest demonstration in the immediate post-war years took place in Rome on 20 February 1949. The event was covered extensively by the specialised press and the national and local newspapers, generating a wide-ranging discussion that reached the seats of Italy’s new Republican parliament elected in June 1946. Over 15,000 studio workers, technicians, actors supported by the CGIL union and producers of the national film association ANICA joined forces to denounce the ‘guilty indifference’ of the Christian Democratic government, recently elected in power, for its inability to safeguard local employment, enact the already insufficient state provisions (decree No. 16 March 1947) and guarantee domestic film quotas against Hollywood’s crushing competition (Cinema, 1949: 261). On the day of the protest, passionate speeches ‘in defence of Italian cinema’ were given in Piazza del Popolo in Rome by high profile personalities of the film industry, including Anna Magnani and Vittorio De Sica.  

Speeches turned into a march as workers flowed into the central Corso Emanuele heading towards the offices of the Direzione Generale dello Spettacolo in via Veneto, where some of the placards that accompanied the protest were eventually laid down. Some read: ‘The government is absent’, ‘Down with speculators’, ‘Let’s defend our art our culture our jobs!’ (Cinema, 1949: 296-298). According to the film magazine Cinema, the police rapid response unit known as ‘la Celere’ was called in, diverting the peaceful march of film workers quite abruptly (1949: 261). According to the national newspaper Corriere d’Informazione (1949), the police were called in to stop the march because it had not been authorised. Another ‘ploy to intimidate and divide [us]’, objected film director Giuseppe De Santis, concluding: ‘we must insist […] the battle has just begun’ (Cinema, 1949: 261).

With the exception of film actors, represented by the Union des Artistes, a long-established union in theatre circles, in the early 1930s French film professionals did not have a representative body which defended their rights and negotiated their contracts with producers or studio directors. Considering themselves above all as ‘creators’, artistic staff (scriptwriters, directors, composers, set-designers or cinematographers) even seemed reluctant to join a union, seen as the exclusive domain of the working class. Behind the glittering and somewhat bohemian image of the French film studios, presented by the film press as ‘dream factories’ where people worked together with joy and good spirit for the love of the 7th Art, workers’ conditions in the studios were rather difficult because of hazardous and over-heated work environments and often fluctuating and exhausting working hours (Lefeuvre 2021: 313-323).

Even if the making of films was largely deregulated, labour disputes did not emerge in the early years of sound. From 1933 onwards, as the international financial crisis affected the national film industry, the fall in production levels, the rise in unemployment and the numerous bankruptcies profoundly destabilized the organisation of French film studios. From 1935 onwards, the first large-scale redundancies took place. The Tobis studios were the first to be affected in October 1935, followed by the Saint-Maurice studios in November 1936 and then the Pathé studios in Joinville in September 1937. Other studios reduced their staff and lowered their salaries, prompting the first major protests among studio workers. 

The technicians’ unions, gathered within the FNSAFF (Fédération Nationale des Syndicats d’Artisans Français du Film), consisted of around 400 members including directors, scriptwriters, composers, and set designers. By 1936, the SGTIF (Syndicat Général des Travailleurs de l’Industrie du Film), created in July 1934, comprised of 3,000 members and represented the manual workers (painters, plasters, carpenters, grips, etc. (Lefeuvre 2018). It was under the SGTIF’s impetus that in the summer of 1936, in the wake of widespread social discontent, strikes and factory occupations sweeping across the country, French studio workers went on strike and occupied their workplace (Lefeuvre 2017).

Strikes were experienced as a festive moment, a ‘joyful’ communion between workers (Weil 1951). During the two weeks of occupation, film studio strikers’ daily life consisted of union meetings to discuss the demands to be made, but also of leisure activities such as ball games, ‘radio-crochet’ and, of course, film screenings. Dancing, however, was prohibited at the Joinville studios, ostensibly ‘to reassure jealous wives’ (Derain 1936). Time was also spent on the logistics of the occupation (e.g., sleeping arrangements, food supplies, cleaning the stages and workshops), often relying on the support of the neighbouring population. In the short documentary film Grèves d’occupation (1936, dir. unknown) which evokes the daily life of the Parisian strikers, one can see a large billboard painted by the Joinville strikers announcing ‘a procession of gladiators’, ‘a stilt race’ or the election of the ‘Queen of the Pathé strikers’. 

The strikes of June 1936 mark an important turning point in the evolution of the contractual conditions for French cinema professionals. On 23 June 1936, after two weeks of negotiations, the first industrial collective agreement was signed. It secured important measures including better health and safety conditions in the studios, a defined salary scale, an increase in the lowest wages, two weeks’ paid holiday and the 40-hour week. Faced with this resounding victory, many technicians, actors, and directors regretted not having participated directly in the industrial action. One of them was Jean Renoir who, in December 1936, in Le Travailleur du film, expressed his support for film workers declaring: 

Thanks to the workers. It is their action that has led to this improvement in our working conditions and if we, the artistic personnel, must have a feeling towards them, it can only be one of regret for we did not support their action more energetically, which should have been our common action (1936: 2).

The 1936 strike pushed technicians and their unions to review their positions and to participate more actively in the industrial controversies that shook the French studios in the last years of the decade. The different unions began negotiations with the producers’ association and studio directors, and between September 1936 and November 1937, more collective agreements were signed, involving different categories of workers including studio administrative employees (Lefeuvre 2017). In the short space of three years, the French studios went from complete deregulation to a situation where all the professional categories in the studios were represented and protected from the abuses of producers and studio directors. 

The social struggles of the 1930s enabled studio professionals to become aware of the common struggles that could unite them, despite the heterogeneity of their status, their levels of remuneration or their socio-cultural backgrounds. The formation of unions in which dressers, prop-makers and seamstresses mixed with directors or scriptwriters for the first time allowed for intersectoral dialogue and exchange. The war and the social struggles of the post-war period accentuated the need to collaboratively defend working standards in a context that was increasingly threatening the future of French film production. As a sign of this evolution, during the large demonstration on 4 January 1948, which denounced the Blum-Byrnes agreements and the competition from American cinema, famous stars such as Jean Marais and Simone Signoret marched for the first time alongside studio workers and technicians (in this image actors Marais and Madeleine Sologne in the front row):

‘French Cinema Must Live’

Between the early 1920s and the late 1940s workers of Western European studios gradually unionised in demand of better working standards or against discriminatory regulation. Workers’ decision to withhold their labour, to march in protest or even to occupy the studios was often stimulated by larger societal and systemic issues, such as post-war inflation, unemployment and political opposition. Whereas the 1950s were a period of infrastructural growth and prosperity for many Western European studios and their associated film companies, the 1950s were also years during which film studios’ workforce and working practices and standards internationalised considerably. We shall wait until the 1960s and 1970s for European studios to become, alongside factories and universities, political battleground for more emancipating social claims.    

References 

Anon., ‘Cine-comizio in Piazza del Popolo’, Corriere d’Informazione (21-22 Feb. 1949): 1. 

Chanan, Michael, Labour Power in the British Film Industry (London: BFI, 1976). 

De Agostini, Fabio, and Massimo Mida, ‘L’ordine non regna più a Varsavia’, Cinema, no. 10 (15 Mar. 1949): 296–98. 

De Santis, Giuseppe, ‘Piazza Del Popolo, prima o dopo’, Cinema, no. 9 (28 Feb. 1949): 261. 

Deppe, Frank and Witich Rossmann, Wirtschaftkrise Faschismus Gewerkschaften (Cologne: Pahl-Rugenstein Verlag, 1981).  

Derain, Lucie, ‘La grève des studios’, La Cinématographie française, no. 919 (13 June 1936): 10. 

Evans, Richard J., The Coming of the Third Reich (London: Penguin Books, 2004).

Lefeuvre, Morgan, ‘Les grèves d’occupation de juin 1936 dans les studios : un tournant dans l’histoire sociale des travailleurs du film’, ed. Laurent Creton and Michel Marie, Le Front populaire et le cinéma français (Paris: Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2017): 35-46.

Lefeuvre, Morgan, ‘Grèves rouges et syndicats jaunes : mouvement social et divisions syndicales dans les studios français (1936-1939)’, ed. Tangui Perron, L’Écran rouge. Syndicalisme et cinéma de Gabin à Belmondo (Paris: L’Atelier, 2018): 42-51.

Lefeuvre, Morgan, Les Manufactures de nos rêves. Les studios de cinéma français des années 1930 (Rennes: PUR, 2021).

Quargnolo, Mario, and Riccardo Redi, ‘Ben Hur a Roma nel 1924’, Immagine: Note di storia del Cinema, no. 33 (Winter 1995): 1–3. 

Renoir, Jean, ‘Un tout petit caillou’, Le Travailleur du film, no. 322 (December 1936): 2. 

Solomon, Jon, Ben-HurThe Original Blockbuster (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016). 

Weil, Simone, La Condition ouvrière (Paris : Gallimard, 1951).

Green for Danger: Pinewood’s first post-war film

By Sarah Street

Following Richard Farmer’s recent post on how the Royal Mint established a subsidiary in Pinewood during the Second World War, the story of the first film to be produced once the studio was de-requisitioned sheds light on the ingenious and resourceful ways in which production teams rose to the challenge of making films when materials required for building sets such as hessian, plaster, timber, paper, rubber and canvas were in short supply, and post-war recovery was only just beginning. As the Kinematograph Weekly put it: ‘Pinewood is the mirror of the production industry: in it we can see many of the problems that are going to face our other major studios when they resume production’ (14 March 1946: 12). Pinewood re-opened its doors to companies in the Independent Group: Cineguild, the Archers and Individual Pictures. Individual was a newly formed production company of prolific British filmmakers Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, and Green for Danger (1946), an adaptation of a detective novel by Christianna Brand, was the first film they made at Pinewood after the war. 

The fiction revolves around a detective’s often rather blundering investigations into some unexplained murders which have taken place in a hospital. Whodunnit? Could be the surgeon, one of the nurses or the anaesthetist. One thing’s for sure, the action takes place within the confines of the hospital, and for this an elaborate set was required. Apart from two brief shots at the beginning, the film was made entirely in the studios spread over two of the sound stages. The work of production designer Peter Proud was remarkable for achieving some amazing results: the creation of a composite hospital set which in the story has been established within the interior of an Elizabethan house requisitioned for an emergency wartime hospital. This plot concentrated action within the hospital’s spaces including a main corridor, several wards, Sister’s office, a large operating theatre, a scrubbing-up room, sterilizing room, hospital laundry, a social hall and adjoining nurses’ rest room, an office, reception desk and porter’s lodge. 

Proud made detailed sketches of the sets in advance of filming, collaborating closely with director Sidney Gilliat to work out the most effective shot constructions. Proud devised several ingenious methods which made filming on this set as smooth and mobile as possible, including making ceilings on runners which could be moved quickly to assist the camera crew. Most of the wall sections were mounted on rollers so that entire sections could be swung in and out of position very quickly. 

To save time the operating theatre set was built twice, each one providing a different viewpoint that the unit could easily capture by moving effortlessly between the two. Proud also used materials in highly resourceful ways such as covering a ceiling by sandfly netting to create a strong, solid ceiling effect but which was transparent enough for the studio lights to penetrate. He used paint rather than plaster on floors to create the impression of concrete and a brick wall effect was made using painted details on glass. Another clever trick was created by special effects expert plasterer Bill Baines who made a bas-relief in plasticine on a glass panel to create the effect of a tower. A report on the film’s production gave the detail: ‘The lower outline was painted to match the lower half of the tower set. Foliage and a cloud effect were painted on a plaster cyclorama, standing behind the bas-relief. The camera crew panned down on a model head’ (Kinematograph Weekly, 2 May 1946: 40). The large number of specialist props including hospital equipment were loaned from the Ministry of Supply. The incongruity of a camera crew in an operating theatre provided some wonderful photo opportunities for reporters, as in this case when the crew took a tea break during filming.

The cinematographer on Green for Danger was Ossie Morris, who recalled difficulties working on the film because Pinewood had started to use American-designed Mitchell cameras which had a different viewing system from the Debrie cameras he was more used to working with. Rather than being able to see exactly what the camera would capture through the viewfinder, the Mitchell camera had its viewer on the left-hand side, away from the axis of the lens and the film gate. This caused parallax problems and particular difficulties in shots which included the five murder suspects even though Morris could only see three in the viewfinder. As he put it: ‘Getting compositions in the viewfinder you have to adopt a whole different approach…You have to make your brain realise you’ve got five people in there’ (Morris 1987). A particularly testing 360 degrees shot came early on in the film when the camera pans across the five possible suspects in the operating theatre, as you’ll see in this extract in which Police Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim) recalls the investigation. 

Even though most of Green for Danger was shot inside Pinewood, an exterior flashback sequence to a London air raid required a perfectly clear sky. Gilliat was equipped with meteorological reports by International Meteorological Consultants, a new service recently hired by Rank which provided production units with supposedly more accurate local weather reports than had previously been possible from the Air Ministry. But although the service aimed to save producers time and money, Gilliat wasn’t impressed with its rather inflated claims to super-accuracy (Macnab 1993: 104). On this occasion night shooting was however successful, but the sound crew encountered a problem when some nightingales they’d disturbed started singing into the mike. The Kinematograph Weekly reported: ‘The unwelcome guests were quickly dispersed by a flood of light from an inverted arc’ (20 June 1946: 43). IMCOS’s American director Ken Willard and employment of American personnel were criticized by the Association of Cine Technicians which at the time was pressing for any hiring of non-British studio personnel to be a reciprocal arrangement. IMCOS was connected at that time to Rank’s internationalist policies and post-war export drive even though in the end producers preferred to rely on local weather reports when scheduling exterior location shooting. 

The film was greeted favourably by critics; it did good business at the British box-office and despite distribution problems comparatively well in the USA. For Launder and Gilliat it represented another well-crafted, mid-range budgeted film whose reputation has increased over time (Brown 1977: 120). The film nearly didn’t get made because the British Board of Film Censors got the wrong end of the stick, thinking the proposal would be a literal adaptation of the novel which was set in a military hospital, rather than the civilian facility which featured in the film. Gilliat recalled their reasoning (spoiler alert!) was ‘that any soldiers would be so overcome by the fear of being murdered by one of the nurses that it could seriously affect their chance of recovery!’ (Brown 1977: 120). As soon as they were put right, the production was given the go-ahead, so bravo for Launder and Gilliat. And here they are sitting proudly with the Green for Danger set in the background.

References

Brown, Geoff, Launder and Gilliat, BFI, 1977.

Kinematograph Weekly, 14 March 1946: 12; 2 May 1946: 40; 20 June 1946: 43.

Morris, Oswald, BECTU interview no. 9, 21 July 1987.

Macnab, Geoffrey, J. Arthur Rank and the British Film Industry, Routledge, 1993.

Picturegoer, 25 May 1946: 9.

The Royal Mint at Pinewood

By Richard Farmer

The Royal Mint has been tasked with producing Britain’s coinage since the 9th century, and throughout its long history it has been acutely sensitive to the possibility of counterfeiting and forgery. It is therefore ironic that during the Second World War the site chosen for the erection of a subsidiary Mint was Pinewood film studios, where fabrication and passing the artificial off as real were a way of life. Here is the Pinewood site map showing the subsidiary Mint’s location.

The Pinewood Mint commenced work in June 1941 and was located in the studio’s scene dock, delayed slightly by the need to find a new home for the numerous sets it had previously housed. It formed part of a wider strategy of dispersal – that is, moving key industrial infrastructure outside major cities and re-establishing it in supposedly safer places. Pinewood was not the only studio to be taken over; the large size and semi-rural location of many British film production facilities meant that they were requisitioned by government and industry (see Sarah Street, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television article to be published 2022/3). Establishing a subsidiary Mint at Pinewood was intended to allow for the uninterrupted striking of coins should the primary facility in east London be damaged or put out of action by enemy bombs. This turned out to be a sensible precaution: during the war the main Mint was hit by ‘several high-explosive bombs, four anti-aircraft shells, and many incendiary bombs,’ with damage causing temporary suspension of work (Craig 1953: 348). Pinewood was chosen because Iver Heath in Buckinghamshire was thought close enough to the city to be easily accessible, but far enough outside London to be less at risk from the Luftwaffe. Even so, the studios were camouflaged in an attempt to make them less visible from the air, as can be seen in this aerial shot. 

Although the production of commercial feature films ceased at Pinewood during the war, the studio was home to several service film units, including the Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU). The correspondence set out below – which has been lightly edited from originals contained in National Archives file MINT 20/1805 – demonstrates that relationships between the studio’s various tenants were not always entirely harmonious.

On 24 June 1943, Deputy Master and Comptroller of the Mint, J. H. Craig, wrote to the Undersecretary of State for War about recent events at Pinewood: 

About 10 am on the 22nd June, 1943, a mass of high explosive was detonated at a distance of 100 to 150 yards from the premises of the Royal Mint in Pinewood studios, Iver Heath, Bucks, by a Lieutenant, R.E., acting as part of, or in behalf of, the Army Film Photographic Unit … The explosion was not created in connection with military exercises or for purposes of research, but appears to have been a mere preliminary operation intended to lead ultimately to the taking of some part of a cinematograph film to be exhibited, if successful, for entertainment. 

The detritus from the explosion penetrated the roof of the Royal Mint in a number of places, the holes being up to 8 inch diameter, and injected into the premises a great deal of dirt, mingled with flying or falling fragments of glass from the roof. In present circumstances, the damage will be difficult to repair completely. I understand that a neighbouring electric power plant and a shed containing aeroplane parts were damaged somewhat more severely, and that this is not the first explosion of some magnitude which has occurred as Pinewood studios.  

It is realised that the officers employed on each film work cannot be expected to be those of high efficiency, but it is hoped that the Army Council will take such steps as are requisite to ensure that the handling by them of high explosive or other lethal apparatus is so conducted as not to endanger life, plant, or essential work.

The Mint was clearly annoyed to have come under friendly fire, not least because it had come to Pinewood in an attempt to minimise war-related disruption to its operations. More than a month passed before Craig received a reply, sent on 27 July 1943 behalf of the Army’s director of public relations:

Sir, with reference to your letter … on the subject of damage caused to the premises of the Royal Mint at Pinewood studios by the exploding of an ammonal charge, I am directed to express regret that this should have occurred.

A full investigation has been made and in the view of the Royal Engineer in charge, the amount of explosive used was not excessive. It is, of course, difficult to predict with accuracy the precise effect of exploding a charge in the ground, as much depend on the consistence of the earth. In this instance clods of earth were flung further than was calculated, with the unfortunate result described in your letter. 

I am to point out, however, that your animadversion upon the efficiency of the Royal Engineer officer detailed to carry out this work is without foundation. Far from being, as you imply, an officer of a low standard of efficiency, he belongs to a field unit highly trained in demolition work. In the view of this Department no blame connected with this incident attached to this officer or to anyone else engaged on the production of this important film of the North African campaign. That the damage should have occurred is unfortunate, and I am therefore to express the hope that you will accept the apology of this Department.

The manufacture of coins recommenced after a short spell of inactivity. The Mint left Pinewood shortly after the war finished, bringing an end to what wags suggested was the only period in which the studio actually made money.

References

John Craig, The Mint: A History of the London Mint from AD 287 to 1948 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953).

Sarah Street, ‘Requisitioning film studios in wartime Britain’ (forthcoming in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 2022-23).

‘Where are the British Shirley Temples?’ The employment of children in British film studios

By Richard Farmer

The issue of exploitative child labour in Britain might bring to mind images of Victorian chimney sweeps and six-year-old factory hands, and might almost as easily be dismissed as having been tidily resolved by a series of mines, factories and education acts passed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which eventually prohibited the full-time employment of youths of compulsory school age (12 at the time that the Employment of Children Act was passed in 1903, rising to 14 in 1918 and 15 in 1947) or the part-time employment of those two years younger. However, until 1963, laws intended to protect children from exploitation in the workplace made it more difficult for British film producers to employ them in studios, precluding – in theory perhaps more than in reality – the emergence of ‘British Shirley Temples’ (Whitley 1935: 26). This prompted frequent, and frequently repetitive, debates about whether children could work on the films, at what age and for how many hours a day, the impact that such work might have on their education, and even whether the absence of a paying audience watching them perform meant that a film studio (in contrast to a theatre) constituted a factory for the purposes of child labour. 

Daily Mirror, 20 Sept 1935

This, though, was not a matter that the British film industry was willing to accept lying down, and British producers were determined to get children in front of the cameras. There were a number of reasons for this. First, children constituted an important audience, and were believed to want to see themselves represented in British films. Second, they were essential to the production of documentary or educational films, for instance those dealing with neonatal and infant healthcare. Finally, as a report produced in 1950 noted, they were needed ‘for ordinary feature films because without them the British film is unrealistic, in so far as all families would have to be shown as childless’ (Report 1950: ¶155). 

Perhaps most importantly, child actors were often very popular. Such was the box-office appeal of imported child stars like Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney, and such was the money that they earned for overseas producers, that in 1933 the films section of the Federation of British Industries (FBI) resolved that ‘in the opinion of the British film production industry, it is essential that the employment of children in film studios in Great Britain shall be permitted’ (Anon 1933: 3). Walter Mycroft of British International Pictures (BIP) proclaimed that ‘We must have children to compete with films from the United States’ (Mannock 1935: 2), whilst other commentators noted that French and German films starring children had also found an audience in the UK, and that the production of big-budget pictures were being held up or abandoned because of the prohibition on the employment of children (Anon 1936: 8). The issue of tidying up the laws concerning the employment of child actors was one that that labour and management could agree on, and a joint delegation from the FBI and the Trades Union Council visited Whitehall in December 1936 in the hope of that they might persuade the Home Office to incorporate specific provisions concerning the employment of child actors in studios in a proposed Factories Act (National Archives: LAB 14/396). They failed.

The difficulties associated with engaging children in British studios led to some youthful British actors moving to Hollywood to pursue fame and fortune. London-born Freddie Bartholomew was ten when in 1934 he moved to America so that he might take a leading role in MGM’s David Copperfield (1935). As British law would not have permitted him to leave the country to take up paid work overseas, his engagement could only be confirmed during a suspiciously well-timed ‘holiday’ in New York (Whitley 1935: 26), although Bartholomew’s estranged father almost succeeded in putting the kybosh on the contract by telling the British press that Freddie had been engaged whilst still in England (Behlmer 1972: 73-4).

Child stars moving in the opposite direction could find themselves in trouble. In 1949, 12-year-old Bobby Driscoll, who had already appeared in films such as Song of the South (1946) and The Window (1949), arrived in Britain to make Treasure Island for Disney at Denham. Disney did not seek to obtain the necessary employment permit for Driscoll, in large part because of his age meant that he could not legally be allowed to work in Britain (Deane 1949: 8).[1] Driscoll, his father, and Disney were each fined £100. Treasure Island’s producers reworked their schedule, at a reported cost of $84,000 (Anon 1949a: 17),[2] to allow the young star to complete shooting as quickly as possible, claiming to have ‘too much money involved’ in the film to replace Driscoll and concerned that he might at some point be prohibited from returning to the studio (Anon 1949b: 3).

Disney felt that it, and Driscoll, were being singled out for unfair attention, noting that films featuring or starring children were made in Britain by British companies with little or no trouble, including such near contemporary productions as The Fallen Idol and Oliver Twist (both 1948). Indeed, the premiere of the latter was attended by both cabinet minister Herbert Morrison and Queen Mary, to whom child star John Howard Davies was presented. Evidently, films produced using child actors were not beyond the pale as far as the great and the good were concerned. Nor were they unusual; and some child performers such as Mandy Miller (The Man in the White Suit, 1951; Mandy, 1952; etc.) were able to make a sufficient number of films to attain a degree of stardom.

The legal restrictions on the employment of children in British film studios were therefore clearly not insurmountable. Many British producers simply gambled on working in an occasional child scene, “chancing” the common informer who may come along and denounce them to the authorities (Anon 1936: 8). Concerns about the legal repercussions of such schemes were not ill-founded, and throughout the 1930s filmmakers received summonses for employing children. Three films released in 1935 alone resulted in producers being brought before the magistrates: 

  • City Films was fined 10 shillings for each of the four summonses it received for employing four children under 12 years of age to appear in Play Up the Band whilst the film was shooting on location at Crystal Palace.
  • BIP was fined 10 shillings for each of the six summonses it received for employing six girls under 12 years of age to appear in Royal Cavalcade at its Elstree studio. The company also paid £5 5s. costs.
  • Associated Talking Pictures (ATP) paid 10s 6d. costs to dismiss charges against it relating to the employment of four Boy Scouts at its Ealing studio during the production of Look Up and Laugh. Other summonses for employing children under the age of 12, making children work after 5.30pm and making them work more than 5 hours in a day, were adjourned sine die

A few years later, Mayflower Films received 26 separate summonses for offences relating to the production of Vessel of Wrath (1938) at Elstree. The company was fined £1 for each offence, and £10 costs, despite claiming that the children, who were each paid a guinea a day, had not missed out educationally because actress Elsa Lanchester, who portrayed a mission-school teacher in the film, continued her role ‘off the set by giving … English lessons’ (Anon 1938: 6).

Child actors in Vessel of Wrath

Compared to the sizeable budgets that these films enjoyed, such fines were relatively small and might almost be understood as one of the costs of doing business in Britain. Indeed, for many years the maximum penalty that could be imposed on studios for employing children could not exceed £5 for a first offence or £20 for a second or subsequent offence (Report 1950: ¶24). Added to this was a degree of sympathy for British film producers – children were permitted, within certain guidelines, to appear on the stage or on BBC wireless programmes, so why should work in a film studio be illegal simply because there was no specific legislation that permitted it? When ATP was prosecuted in relation to Look Up and Laugh, for instance, the local council went out of its way to stress in court that although it was bound to report the breach of the law, it harboured ‘no antagonistic feeling’ towards the studio and ‘recognised the difficulties of the film industry in the making of films’ (Anon 1935: 9). 

Each of the four cases mentioned above relate to the employment of children as extras, most of whom would have been in and out of the studio in a few days. However, should a child in a prominent role be forced to give up filming part-way through production, the consequences would have been considerably more expensive, involving recasting and reshoots, and this might explain why many British filmmakers resorted to underhand tactics to ensure that their child stars could work in peace. Whilst claims that children were ‘“smuggled” into studios to film in secret’ should probably not be taken literally (Anon 1950: 5), it tended to be the case that producers held off announcing a child’s appearance until after a film was in the can. Eleven-year-old William Andy Ray’s role in The Mudlark (1950), for example, was not revealed until after shooting ended, in order to ensure that the film could be completed without the relevant authorities beating the door down (Richards 1950: 13). The mistake that Disney made when producing Treasure Island might have been to draw too much attention to the presence of its child star.

Whilst we might wonder whether the post facto announcement of child actors also worked to generate valuable publicity, such subterfuge did tend to be effective; there were few, if any, retrospective prosecutions, and local authorities sometimes found it difficult to gain access to studios to inspect for the presence of children, as the Bateson Committee’s report pointed out in 1950: ‘A justice’s warrant is necessary to authorise an officer of a local education authority to enter premises where he thinks an offence is being committed’ (Report 1950: ¶24). Some local authorities found it easier to ensure child safety in studios by coming to extra-statutory agreements with producers that permitted filmmakers to employ children on the understanding that council officers were able to ensure that a child’s welfare and education was being appropriately attended to (Report 1950: ¶24). Other filmmakers adopted a policy of engaging children as soon as they could legally be employed, and then playing them in roles younger than their actual age. This was a tactic used successfully for many years by Mary Field at the Children’s Film Foundation (Agajanian 1998: 400).

The implementation of the 1963 Children and Young Person’s Act finally provided greater clarity. The Act allowed for the first time the legal employment of younger children by providing local authority with the power to licence the employment of children under 13 years of age in roles where ‘the part they are to act cannot be taken except by a child of about their age’ (s 38 (1)). All children of compulsory school age needed to be employed under licence, and these would be granted only in instances where ‘proper provision has been made to secure their health and kind treatment and that, having regard to such provision (if any) as has been or will be made therefor, their education will not suffer.’ (s 37 (4)). Playing the title role in Oliver! (1968), 8-year-old Mark Lester benefitted from the provisions of the new act, spending three hours on set each day and receiving lessons in ‘a special schoolroom built in the studios’ under the careful watch of ‘two trained teachers’ (Short 1967: 15). 

Mark Lester in Oliver!

Despite the implantation of the 1963 Act, Oliver’s producers still claimed to be wary of announcing Lester’s involvement in their film, citing concerns that they might face prosecution under the Employment of Children Act, 1903. Whilst such claims made for good copy, especially in relation to a film that took the mistreatment and exploitation of children as a central theme, we should also note that during the decades it took parliament to pass legislation permitting the employment of children in film studios, a sense of confusion regarding child actors became engrained within the British film industry. But whilst we should be grateful that children are properly cared for and educated whilst working in British studios, the question of child labour legislation and its impact on film production should also shine a light on the wide range of regulations that affect studio working practices and the lives of all who are employed there.

References

Rowana Agajanian (1998), ‘Just for Kids?’: Saturday morning cinema and Britain’s children’s film foundation in the 1960s,’ Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 18:3: 395-409.

Anon (1933), ‘Child actors’, Yorkshire Post, 7 December: 3.

Anon (1935), ‘Boy Scouts employed in Ealing film’, West Middlesex Gazette, 22 June: 9.

Anon (1936), ‘The £250-a-week child’, John Bull, 11 January: 8-9.

Anon (1938), ‘Child artistes in British films’, Kinematograph Weekly, 5 May: 6.

Anon (1949a), ‘British sustain Disney kid fine’, Variety, 26 October: 17.

Anon (1949b), ‘Boy star loses appeal’, Daily Mirror, 26 October: 3.

Anon (1950), ‘Child film actors move’, Daily Record, 23 August: 5.

Rudy Behlmer (1972), Memo from David O. Selznick. New York: Viking Press. Telegram from Selznick to Sol Rosenblatt, 17 August 1934.

Milton Deane (1949), ‘20th will make at least 30’, Hollywood Reporter, 6 October: 8.

P. L. Mannock (1935), ‘Allowing film children’, Daily Herald, 7 August: 2.

National Archives, Kew: LAB 14/396 – Employment of children in film studios: meeting with representatives of Trades Union Congress.

Report of the Departmental Committee on the Employment of Children as Film Actors, in Theatrical Work and in Ballet(1950). London: HMSO.

Dick Richards (1950), ‘David falls for Hollywood’, Sunday Pictorial, 30 June: 13.

Don Short (1967), ‘Haunting face of the film men’s secret Oliver’, Daily Mirror, 3 November: 15.

R. J. Whitley (1935), ‘Where are the British Shirley Temples?’, Daily Mirror, 20 September: 26.